Losing Their Homes, and Their Religion

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on April 27, 2007.

It can be argued that the evacuation from Gaza hit the younger generation particularly hard, making them particularly susceptible to rebellion against any type of authority, religious included

On his last day in Gush Katif, Assaf Israeli, 25, along with his parents and siblings, managed to stave off the army for hours: They locked the doors and windows of their house, blocked the entrance, spoke passionately with the soldiers – anything to stop the destruction of their home in Netzer Hazani.

“We didn’t pack anything,” Israeli recounted during an interview that took place in Nitzan, where many Gush Katif evacuees live in prefabricated homes referred to as “caravillas.” Israeli himself lives in the nearby caravilla community at Ein Tzurim, but is visiting a friend who is building a one-room house in Nitzan.

A dirt road leads to the construction site, where Israeli sits on a plastic crate under lights powered by a generator, as he relates the loss of his home.

“The soldiers were with us for six hours,” he says. Dark and handsome in his leather jacket, a new earring shining from one ear, Israeli looks nothing like the stereotypical religious settler. “We didn’t let them in,” he continues. “I made a bonfire to block the entrance. We made it very difficult.

“Fifteen soldiers couldn’t take my father out of the house, 30 couldn’t, even the lieutenant-colonel couldn’t. In the end a rabbi took my father out of the house. I couldn’t bear to watch it. The moment the rabbi came, I left. I couldn’t stay there anymore.”

At that point, Israeli didn’t only leave his home of 25 years, he left Jewish observance completely. On the last day of the disengagement, he made his last stop at the Netzer Hazani synagogue and cried. He hasn’t stepped into a synagogue since, not even for his brother’s Shabbat hatan [celebration held on the weekend prior to a wedding]. He can’t find his tefillin. On the Shabbat immediately following disengagement, he lit a cigarette – an egregious Shabbat violation. He describes “moments when I’d hear a dvar Torah at the Shabbat table and I’d get up and walk out.”

Israeli grew up in a religious home and recalls how he entered the religious pre-army preparation course with a large knitted kippa and dangling tzitziot. His observance waned in the army, but after service he returned to his religious base. Today, he lives a standard secular lifestyle: He drives on Shabbat, eats non-kosher (except, he says, for mixing meat with dairy, a hard habit to break) and goes to bars and nightclubs on Friday nights.

A self-professed former army loyalist, he refused to fight in last summer’s Second Lebanon War. “Once I would have died for the state. Not anymore.”

Israeli’s story reflects the disillusionment with Orthodox Judaism some young Gush Katif evacuees experienced following disengagement. It is one of the side effects of the trauma they experienced when they were uprooted from their homes.

“It’s true that there was a religious decline,” says Asher Daninu, 30, a coordinator of youth activities in Nitzan. “It occurred mostly right after disengagement, but more in the realm of enthusiasm. For many it still exists, but it’s starting to improve. They are not as enthusiastic, but it is not a defiant breakdown. There aren’t cases in which they became heretics.”

Immediately following the evacuation, he notes, there was a general rejection of rabbinic leadership among young people and a drop in interest in synagogue attendance. “In the first few months there were those who really had a serious breakdown. They wandered between religious and secular, but most of them came back to themselves.”

T., who has worked as coordinator of youth activities in Gush Katif communities, has observed the opposite – a strengthening of faith among evacuees in their teens and early 20s.

“This is one of the things that surprised me. First, there wasn’t a phenomenon of secularization. Second, there wasn’t a serious decline in army recruitment. The youth are all showing up for the army, but their motivation to serve as officers is much lower.”

T. attributes this in part to a new skepticism toward man and the man-made, which many evacuees believe have betrayed them: “In Gush Katif we came to the conclusion that everything depends on God… We trust in God, not in people.”

While he has observed that the general level of religious observance has largely remained intact, young people have undergone hardships and internal revolutions in other areas: the shattering of parental and rabbinic authority; students who once excelled in high school are failing due to interruptions in schooling; and once happy teenagers and 20-somethings bottle a lot of anger inside.

“Their self-image is dwindling,” T. says. He acknowledges a few cases of youths who have left religion or escaped the pain through drug use, but maintains that they are marginal cases. Among some of the newly secular evacuees, disengagement may have simply accelerated a process which began earlier.

“From my perspective, even in Gush Katif, there were those who took the kippa off here and there, and it also happens today. Their number hasn’t increased. On the other hand, I see young people about whom I wondered if they would keep their kippot on, even in Gush Katif. Now they are studying in yeshivot and their kippot are planted firmly.”

He admits that some high school graduates went to study in yeshiva as one way to dodge the army, which they now look upon with distrust and hurt.

The evacuation may have accelerated the decline in observance of F., 23, from Netzer Hazani. He stopped keeping Shabbat not long after disengagement. “If it’s just because of the evacuation, I can’t say, but it could be. You can say that it helped,” says F. He notices that among his peers, aged 22 to 24, religious life is no longer a priority. “Today, they either don’t observe at all, or it has become less important.”

It can be argued that the evacuation hit the younger generation particularly hard, making them particularly susceptible to rebellion against any type of authority, religious included.

“There are more feelings of alienation on the part of the younger people – alienation from their country, their families,” explains Dr. Naomi Baum of the Israel Trauma Center, who worked with guidance counselors and parents of Gush Katif youth. “They’re going through regular teenage stuff, but with all the extras added. This makes things complicated.”

Among the 1,200 Gush Katif high school students, estimates show that some 30 percent are considered to be in a state of psychological distress, while about 150 have exhibited at-risk behavior, including the use of alcohol, violence and vandalism.

“There is a direct correlation between experiencing trauma and risk-taking behavior such as experimenting with drugs, unsafe driving, violence and alcohol,” Baum explains. “It would not be surprising at all if kids from Gush Katif are exhibiting such behaviors at a higher level. There are a few ways to understand it: If dangerous things are going to happen anyway, let me be the boss, let me control it. Another reason is to relive the dangerous situation, to re-experience it on their own terms. Another reason is: Why bother, why worry if today is so lousy.”

While she has not studied the impact of faith among Gush Katif youth, she notes that lapses in observance may go hand-in-hand with at-risk behavior.

Miriam Shapira, a clinical psychologist and director of Mahut: the Center for Preparation for Community Emergencies of the Samaria Regional Council, has counseled Gush Katif evacuees and notes that any religious upheaval is part of a greater crumbling of all communal, parental and social frameworks.

“The uprooted youth suffer from many things – trauma, mourning over what they lost and problems of adjusting. They have no homes, they don’t know where they will live, their parents don’t have jobs. We are talking about a continuous breakdown. The changes in faith among the uprooted have less to do with religion – they are trying to survive.”

More notable among the young, she says, are feelings of anger toward the state, a sense of betrayal by its institutions and disillusionment with the army.

In her book Off the Derech, Faranak Margolese studied why Orthodox Jews leave religion. She found that when basic emotional and security needs are not met, difficulties can sometimes arise. “When such fundamental emotional needs are not met, one’s whole focus goes toward fulfilling those needs and religiosity often suffers,” she wrote. “Even worse, when those needs are sabotaged through something related to a religious or Jewish experience, Judaism itself may be perceived as an obstacle to peace and happiness. Judaism, Jewish life and one’s relationship to or even belief in God may then suffer.”

Unlike issues of employment and housing, which can be measured in percentages (although with conflicting figures offered by government officials and the evacuees), matters of faith are personal, between the individual and God. Without interviewing each evacuee, it is almost impossible to achieve any accurate indication.

A recent report published by the Friends of Gush Katif detailing the status of Gush Katif evacuees 20 months since the evacuation reveals that about 37 percent of the evacuees are still unemployed, with many of them not working in their professional fields, and aboutE 85% of 1,667 Gush Katif families continue to live in temporary housing sites, with few concrete prospects for permanent housing.

This makes study of the impact of faith upon the youth challenging, particularly when community leaders and the young people offer conflicting impressions.

Rabbi Kobi Bornstein, who taught at the hesder yeshiva in Neveh Dekalim, affirmed a short period of questioning, but not any serious breakdown of faith. “I think [we all experienced a crisis], not only among youth but with adults. We all had difficult times with difficult emotions, such as anger.

But I don’t know if [a crisis of faith] as a phenomenon happened in any serious way, not something that took more than a day or two to pass,” he says.

Yair Shahal, regional coordinator of the Bnei Akiva youth movement’s southern region, on the other hand, has encountered several evacuees who are no longer religious.

“Whoever went through a breakdown like this in their formative years, as teenager or youngster, their entire foundations are shaken,” he notes.

Despite observations to the contrary, F. from Netzer Hazani doesn’t notice any boost in religious dedication among his peers and comments on the lack of consistency of opinion among leaders. “Those who became stronger – I don’t see it… Everyone sees what he wants to see. You can ignore it, suppress it or deal with it.”

Immediately after the evacuation, P., 21, began to rebel against Orthodox practice. A self-proclaimed “religious girl, a product of ulpana” prior to disengagement, P. smoked a cigarette on Shabbat one month after.

“I felt very disappointed. I really believed God wouldn’t do this, then He did. I felt very angry – at the state, at everything, at God. If God is all good and all powerful, yet could do something like this and hurt us in such a way, then I don’t have a conscience anymore.”

P. is not completely at peace with the path she has chosen. “Sometimes I think that the way I tried to deal with the evacuation isn’t so right. After the evacuation, I didn’t go and ask rabbis. I also could have spoken to rabbis to find strength to help me understand why it happened to us and to strengthen me. I decided to escape and break with everything.”

She justifies her actions by explaining that in her anger, it was very difficult for her to seek clarifications, to listen to rebuke or to feel guilt. “Every time I get on a bus on Shabbat and get these bouts of conscience and ask myself, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I answer: God hurt me much more.”

S., a 20-year-old Gush Katif evacuee, also adopted a more secular mind-set, explaining: “Our whole life in Gush Katif revolved around religion and God. Everything we did was connected to God – from waking up in the morning to getting on the bus without fear of Arabs or mortar shells. We trusted in God that everything would be okay. And it was. We survived there in a way you can’t explain except as divine providence.”

S., an active anti-disengagement protester and dedicated religious Zionist prior to disengagement, has since relaxed her observance. She abandoned traditional prayer, didn’t always eat kosher, adopted less modest clothing and behavior, and started smoking.

She continues to observe Shabbat, but with less devotion. “I lived only for myself. I thought only about myself – not God or anything else.”

Pangs of guilt plagued her as she veered off the religious path, and she tried to seek answers to guide her back toward religion. “One time I went to speak with a rabbi about my loss of faith because I wanted to return, to get answers. The only thing he said to me was that if I didn’t have faith now, I didn’t have faith back then. That made me more annoyed and more anti-religion and anti- God.”

This incident only exacerbated her disillusionment with rabbis, a disillusionment common even among those who maintained their level of religious observance. S. has biting criticism for the rabbinic leadership of the anti- disengagement struggle, explaining that rabbis hardly gave consistent opinions regarding how to battle disengagement (to follow orders or not) or regarding the future of Gush Katif (would it or wouldn’t it happen).

Shahal affirms that young evacuees no longer view rabbis with the same awe and respect. The rabbinic leadership, he explains, was a dominant force in the struggle against evacuation, and the bond between the young people and the community rabbis was strong. “Once the results of the struggle were apparent and the bottom line was that the communities were gone, some said the struggle was good, some said it was a failure. It created confusion. I think this was a defining moment… There are those who say, if a leader failed, reject the leader.”

But he doesn’t think community rabbis offered any definite predictions about the fate of the evacuees. “They were very careful in this matter. Very few rabbis guaranteed that it would not happen. They said they would do their best. They gave hope, but I never heard them make promises.”

But for S., the rabbinic handling of the aftermath of disengagement was just as riddled with failure as its handling of the struggle. “After the expulsion, we didn’t hear anything from them. They didn’t ask what was happening with us, the youth. They didn’t write letters. They simply disappeared… When I tried to ask people and rabbis why they suddenly disappeared, and the rabbis didn’t answer, I gathered from people that they themselves were confused.”

While T. says that the community heard lectures and sermons and held discussions on the theological issues raised by disengagement, Shahal doesn’t think there was any organized effort to prevent a religious decline. But, he says, “there was a process even before the explusion to continue a strong spiritual world.”

About a month after disengagement, I came across a pamphlet at the Ein Tzurim guest house, which temporarily housed evacuees. It was written by haredi kabbalist Ya’acov Edes and entitled: “A Letter to Questioners Among the Evacuees of Gush Katif.” Edes was unavailable for comment, but he must have anticipated a crisis of faith among evacuees.

Written in simple Hebrew, the 30-page pamphlet attempts to respond to questions evacuees might harbor, like: How can we continue to fulfill God’s will after dedicating our lives to serving Him in Gush Katif? How can we worship according to Halacha when we don’t have the physical and communal infrastructure to do so? Where did our prayers go?

Upon showing S. the pamphlet during our interview, she said: “At least someone tried.” When asked why community leaders offer conflicting opinions regarding the breakdown of faith, she says that those who went off the religious path wouldn’t confide in the communal leadership, and certainly not in the rabbinate. While she doesn’t think religious rebellion was widespread, she noticed a decline, varying in length and intensity, among her peers. In addition, she explains that the community already feels so humiliated that exposing a breakdown of faith is like “airing dirty laundry.”

But for some Gush Katif evacuees, the religious fallout was followed by a religious renewal. While they may have experienced a temporary period of serious questioning and leniency in observance, they returned to the faith they knew and lived while in Gush Katif, some with more intensity.

Rina, 24, from Gadid, didn’t step into a synagogue for six months after the disengagement. “After the evacuation I didn’t pray; I had nothing to talk about with God. Less than a year after, I felt alone without a god; I began to pray again and to believe. Now I’m more religious.”

Embracing God anew and observing mitzvot now helps her cope with and accept her losses. “Rationally, you can’t understand the evacuation. There is no sense in a state that could do this. So there has to be a greater source that was responsible for this,” she says.

Racheli Yechieli, 19, from Katif, became more steeped in her religious Zionism following disengagement. While she experienced an initial period of questioning, she ultimately found answers to satisfy her: “My faith in God and the Torah is not something that could change in a second, even after such difficulty. It made me ask questions anew. After the expulsion, the opposite happened: my faith grew. It made me realize that I could want something, but it’s not up to me. In the end, God wants what is good.”

Currently, she lives in a largely secular town in the north of the country, and views her new, religiously- grounded mission in sharing her values with mainstream, secular Israelis. As part of her national service, she worked with the youth of Gush Katif and has noticed that, all in all, most of them have recovered from any religious fallout.

“It was hard,” she says, “a time of breakdown, which obviously leads to new things. They were great kids. We fought for our land and homes. We didn’t get what we wanted. So we asked questions, and sometimes they were difficult questions. In the beginning, they may have lost faith, but most of them returned to their base.”

F. also foresees his ultimate return to religion: “You feel like you got a slap from above and the foundations were disrupted. After that you rebuild.

I believe that at some point, people will return when this period is over.”

Since seeking counseling with a psychologist, P. has begun to work through her pain and anger, but she is still not completely comforted. “As time passes, like after someone dies, you heal with time. It’s different here. After a year-and-a-half you’d think you are still trying to build yourself again.”EAnd although she now calls herself secular, she’s far from being an atheist. “Someone who grows up with my kind of education and roots can’t ignore it, just as a Jew or Israeli who leaves Israel can’t disconnect from his roots so easily. I’m very happy that I merited this education, the way I was raised. It’s not that I have heretical thoughts and question God and [the divine origins] of the Torah.”

Nevertheless, she doesn’t see herself returning so quickly. “I’m in a cycle that is very hard to break. The secular life is very tempting and rich,” she says.

Rina, despite her return to whole-hearted observance, continues to harbor a touch of resentment. “I didn’t forgive [God] all the way. He has to compensate me somehow in the next few years,” she summarizes.